by lyle e davis
Let’s say you and I wanted to make a lot of money. Let’s say further that we could put together about $5000 cash. With that, we’d buy 1000 Longhorn cattle at $4 each, then drive them North from Texas, where they weren’t worth spit, to Dodge City, Kansas, where people were clamoring for beef, beef, and more beef. We’d sell those same cattle at $40 a head for a gross profit of $36,000. We’d settle up with the cowboys, 20 of them at $20 per month. That’s $400. Another $400 for supplies and incidentals, for a total of $800. That leaves $35,200 net profit for a month’s work. And that kind of money is what created and drove cattle drives . . . and what led to what is known as The Chisholm Trail.
Jacob Bennett was a cowboy in Texas who was born just before the Civil War. His mother died when he was 10, and by age 14 he was a working cowboy on the ranch of Carroll Powell. Late in his life, when he was 79, he was interviewed in Tarrant County, Texas, by Woody Phipps as part of the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
When he started work for Powell, Bennett was paid "$14 a month and chuck," and proved such a good hand that before he turned 15, his pay was increased to $20 a month.
At age 16, Bennett moved on to the ranch of Tom Curry. Shortly after he joined the operation, the spring roundup began. This was a time when, as Bennett described it, "only the farms were fenced. The range was as free of fence as a stampeding herd is of sense. The grass came up to a rider's heels on horseback," he said, and "when a critter laid down in them days, it was lost from sight and you'd have a hard time finding it 'til you run across the very spot it was laying."
During the roundup, Bennett said, "all the ranchers round up every head on the range; then, when they get all the cattle together, they cut out what belongs to each other, then they can do what they please with their own cattle. All the men work at top speed to get the cattle all cut out and the work over before something happens to stampede the herd, and separate it all out again."
"We were furnished hosses that, in lots of cases, knowed more about cow work than some of the fellows in the saddle. That sounds sort of stretched, but all we had to do was to show a cutting hoss a certain critter we wanted cut out of the herd, and that hoss would get after that critter like it was some sort of a game and stay with the critter till the hoss run it plum out of the herd. The way we showed the hoss what we wanted was by hitting it with a rope, our lasso. Not only cut the critter out of the herd, but when you make your cast with your lasso, that hoss knowed just the right second when to sit down to keep the critter from dragging the hoss, and, if the hoss sat down too soon, there'd be so much slack in the rope the critter'd have leverage to pull with. Then, if the hoss sat down a little late, it'd be just in the act of going down and'd have the least resistance it'd have at any time. You see, that's the reason the cowpunchers loved their hosses so much when they had one that was a good one. When he had a good hoss, his work was so much easier that it just made all the difference in the world."
Sometimes, the horses worked too well. Bennett described an incident during roundup that left him shaken pretty much for the rest of his life, whenever he happened to think about it.
"Well, during the cutting out, a big old steer quit the herd and went to running off. Two cowpunchers who happened to be off aways from the steer, and in different directions, rode in as fast as they could ride, trying to cut he steer off and drive it back to the herd. Well, not paying no attention to each other but keeping their minds on the steer, they ran together and both fell off. One of them broke his neck in the fall, and the other fell under the other man's hoss, which stepped in his face and kicked his head half loose. That was the gruesomest sight ever I expect to see, the faces they had. Even when I stop to think about it, it gives me the cold shudders and I have to think of something else."
Work as a cowboy was dangerous in those days -- and there were no cellular phones, helicopters or nearby hospitals available when a cowboy was injured on the range. He either survived, or was buried. The dangers could run the gamut from stampede, lightning, drowning during river crossings, snakebite, scorpion sting, rustlers, bushwackers, jayhawkers, Indians, unhappy farmers, prairie dog holes, and unrelenting heat . . or cold.
But Bennett had fond memories of those days, just the same. He told Phipps, "Oh, that range life's mighty exciting at times. Especially in the olden days when we had mustangs to ride, and longhorns to brand. I'd a heap druther live that life than the one I'm living right now. The 'Old Rocking Chair's' got me now. Got me, for sure."
Rowdy Buell, born in Indiana before the Civil War, was given his first horse at the age of 6, and was riding soon afterward. In later years, he worked on ranches in Idaho, then made his way to the Texas ranges. He was interviewed at the age of 78 in Tarrant County, Texas.
"When I was about 16, I left home by myself to go to work for a bigger spread than my dad's. I don't know yet what made me want to leave a good home but I did anyway. I drifted on north 'til I hit the Snake River Valley Range, where I was hired by the ramrod on the Muleshoe outfit. The name was their brand, a mule's shoe burnt in the left hip. The Muleshoe outfit run about 3,000 head, which for the most part stayed up in the mountains where there was good grazing in the summer time."
Since these were the days of open range, at roundup time all the ranchers got together to bring the cattle out of the mountains. "These roundups would have from 30,000 to 50,000 critters in them, and all belonging to about 30 ranchers in all. You see, if a man had 1,000 critters, he wouldn't have to have very many cow pokes but if he had 2,000, he'd have to have twice as many as the other fellow and that way, the work was divided proportionately. They didn't just have their riders though, they'd have every member of their family in the roundup that could make a cow hand. There were several old men that were too old to ride, so they'd tend to the chuck wagon work. We'd have from one to three chuck wagons at work when the cattle were on a wide range but as the range was narrowed down, a chuck wagon would be cut off," he said.
"When the herd was finally gathered, there would be literally a sea of cattle. Just as far as you could see, almost, you'd see the herd. A sea of tossing horns, bawling cattle, and here and there, a critter mounting another for a better look around him. It was a picture I'll carry to my grave. The work was over quicker than you'd expect, because every man would work like beavers. They'd all pitch in without a boss, and you'd see from 20 to 30 branding fires going all around the herd. It was really simple because the spring and fall roundups had calves to brand, and a calf was branded with the some iron it's mother carried. A calf was the only thing you had to brand anyway, because the mothers all carried a brand unless it had grown up and escaped the roundups held before someway. You see, a calf stays with its mother in all kinds of trouble, or anything that can happen to it. All the outfits furnished plenty of irons so each branding crew could have an iron for each outfit. As a cow poke cut a critter out, another would take it and give the puncher another lasso, he'd return, cut out another, and so on. The work was a pleasure because everybody realized how necessary it was to work together and put it out 'tll the work was all done. The cutting cow pokes only took a cow that had a mother with it, and only roped the mother because the calf would follow the mother out of the herd. Somebody lassoed the calf, then they branded it 'til the herd was worked clean of calves that could be identified by their mothers. After these were worked over, then would come the critters that were left. The ranchers decided on a percentage system to give the most of the unbranded grown critters to the rancher with the biggest herd, then so on down in a sort of a ratio way 'til the smallest herd would get the smallest number of unbranded grown critters. Each branding crew had a tally sheet, and one man to each tally sheet would keep the tally and herd the branded critters to its separate herd that would be kept away from the main herd 'til the work was all done. When the dividing had all been done, all the tally sheets would be brought together, each brand counted, then each rancher would know just how many critters he owned and was in his herd. After all the dividing had been done, and the tally sheets counted, the herds were all turned loose in the valley to winter."
Buell spent a number of years as a stagecoach driver, then drifted down to Texas and wandered from one ranch job to another. He ended up buying some land in the Fort Worth area, became a real estate speculator and cashed in on the Texas oil boom. He told Phipps, "I never did go back to the range any more after this, because the real estate business got me into the oil business, and so on. I made a lot more money wet-nursing oil wells then I ever did punching dogies along and riding hosses."
What contributed to the cattle boom was the fact that Texas Longhorns were descendants of cattle brought over by the Spanish. The Longhorns were left alone to survive in the wilds of northern Mexico and southern Texas while the men went away to fight each other in the Civil War. Nature converted the once domesticated animal into a lean and hardy breed, fully capable of defending itself against most predators with its long horns and sharp hooves.
The end result was a breed of cattle, resistant also to disease and drought, that flourished until it numbered in the millions. As the buffalo were all but hunted out of existence, their place (in the southern regions, anyway) was taken over by the Longhorns. Yet within half a century, the Texas Longhorns also were nearly extinct as a species.
At the end of the War Between the States, a seemingly endless supply of Longhorns existed. Harry Sinclair Drago writes in Wild, Woolly & Wicked that they were considered next to worthless in Texas. Thousands were killed for the tallow and hides -- a good cowhide might bring as much as $3. Markets for the entire animal were rare -- primarily New Orleans and Mobile, which couldn't handle them in any large quantities.
Small herds of cattle were driven through the Indian Nations (a part of what later became the state of Oklahoma) to markets in Missouri and Illinois, when possible, during the war. After the war, if the cattlemen could get their product to Chicago, a market was waiting for them there -- paying as much as $35 to $40 a head. This first trail was called the Shawnee Trail, and later was known as the Texas Trail or the Texas Road.
The year was 1866. Cattlemen rounded up Longhorns by the millions in Texas, cropped their ears, branded their hides, and drove them north. Somewhere along the way, without intending to do more than work for a hard day's pay and board, they launched the legend of the American cowboy.
The cattle drives followed three major routes through what is now Oklahoma. One of those routes, was known as the Chisholm Trail.
In addition to periodic raids by Indians, if the cattlemen made it to Kansas or Missouri with their herds intact, they had to deal with roving bands of ex-soldiers who called themselves Jayhawkers or red-legs, and who enjoyed murdering Texans. The cattlemen also had to deal with unhappy farmers and ranchers, prohibitive laws and uncooperative weather.
David Dary, in his book Cowboy Culture -- A Saga of Five Centuries, says 260,000 head of cattle headed toward Kansas and Missouri that first spring and summer, but only about half reached their destinations.
Banned in Missouri
Cattle had been herded through Missouri in the decade before the Civil War, so it was natural that the practice would continue once that unpleasantness had ended. But there were hard feelings in Missouri beyond those left unresolved by the end of the war.
Cattle from Texas tended to carry ticks with them; these ticks carried so-called Texas Fever or Spanish Fever. It didn't harm the hardy Longhorns, but it was deadly to the weaker breeds of cattle in Missouri. Everywhere the Texas cattle passed, or lingered for the night, became deadly to the domestic cattle of Missouri -- and the Missourians didn't know that the tick was the cause, for a long time. The Missouri livestock died by the thousands, particularly during the late summer of 1855, and again in 1858.
The Missouri Legislature passed a law forbidding movement of any kind within the state of any livestock known to be carrying Texas or Spanish Fever. Vigilance committees were formed by Missouri farmers to turn back the herds at various county boundaries.
Earnest Cook, born in 1881, was 56 years old when he was interviewed in Tarrant County, Texas, by Sheldon F. Gauthier as part of the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
Cook was born on the Tarleton Ranch in Erath County, Texas, where his father was the ranch foreman. "I guess my father started teaching me to ride by tying me on a hoss with a rope, because I don't remember when I could not ride. When I was 7 years old, I was able to ride good enough to be used as a cowhand, and was used as a rider. Now you can understand me when I say I actually grew up in the saddle."
After working for several ranches in New Mexico and Texas, Cook returned to his home area to start his own ranch. He ended up with 1,500 acres where the old Tarleton Ranch once stood.
"Of course, on a large ranch, we lived in the open practically all the time. Our bunk was, ‘’The green below, and the blue above,’ if it wasn't raining. We rolled ourselves in tarpaulins, and used our saddles for pillows. Our chuck ran strong to beans, besides meat. We had all the beef we wanted because we could kill a choice yearling whenever we wanted beef, eat the choice cuts, and throw the balance away. Antelope then ran in herds of hundreds and it was a simple matter to kill one when it was wanted for meat. We ate a great quantity of antelope because it is tender and excellently flavored meat. Black coffee was our drink with the meals, and our bread was of the best. It was called sourdough bread. The cookys knew how to make it right. I have seen it rise to the cover of the camp oven. The camp oven was made of steel. To bake with it, hot embers were placed under, and on top of it. All the food was hauled in a wagon called the "Chuck Wagon," also the tarpaulins and such other supplies that were necessary. I believe that covers the method of handling the cowhand's chuck."
Cook said he was often asked how the cowboys knew which brand to burn into the hide of a calf, since the calves were rounded up with the rest of the herds running free on the range.
"As soon an a calf has been roped," he said, "it will begin to bawl and start to pitching. While it is elevating, a hand grabs its forefront hoof, and flips the critter on its back, then folds the doubled leg back against its side. In that manner, the calf is held until the hot branding iron is applied. The roundup, as you know, refers to the gathering together of the cattle. The cattle may be owned by several people. The process of cutting out the critters wanted is the next step to the roundup. Cutting out means riding into the herd, and roping the critter wanted. When branding calves, of course, those are the critters roped. Each owner has their brands ready, and the owner of the calf would be ready to place his brand. The question of ownership was determined by the calf's mother who knows the voice and bawl of her calf. The calf begins to bawl as soon as it is roped, then the mother goes to it. Since the mother cow has her owner's brand on her, the proper brand is easy to determine," he said.
"It requires practice to become proficient in flipping a calf as well as to rope. Both are an art. I was very good at roping. We changed hosses every hour because the best cow-hoss couldn't stand cutting out for a much longer period. A roper usually had six or seven hosses for his use. Generally, the kind used were the Spanish and Steeldust breeds mixed. The Steeldust breed is a racing stock and made the best cow-hoss. The Spanish blood gave durability, and the racing stock gave speed. A Spanish pony never became completely broke. A rider can expect it to pitch at any time but the animal understood his cow job."
H. P. Cook
At 10 years of age, H.P. Cook was truly a "cow-boy" when he took his first trail drive north from Texas to Kansas -- and it was as a working cowboy, at that. He told his story at age 76 to Charles R. Fuller as part of the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
"Yes, it is true that I went 'Up the Trail' when I was only 10 years old." It was in 1871 that I made my first trip. At that time I was working for [Hillery] Bedford, who lived on Black Creek, near Decatur, Texas. He had several thousand head rounded up to take to Fort Dodge, Kansas, consisting of native Spanish cattle (longhorns), and including steers, cows and yearlings. I think there were 12 cowboys and a chuck wagon. Now, I wasn't taken along as a mascot, but as I was working for Bedford and doing regular cowboy work, he told the boys to let me go if I wanted to. I made a regular hand on the trail, too, and took my place on the shifts at night, after the cattle were bedded down. You know, back in those days, lots of boys were good cowboys by the time they were 10 years old. But the next oldest boy on this drive was 18. I don't think there was anybody else in that part of the country of my age that was doing regular cowboy work on the ranches."
It was some 66 years later that he told Fuller his story, and his memories were dimmed with time. Nevertheless, he remembered crossing the Red River somewhere in the vicinity of Old Spanish Fort, which is on a bend of the river just a few miles downstream from Red River Station -- a much more popular crossing for the Chisholm Trail. The herd followed a large part of Jesse Chisholm's Trail north, before taking a fork and heading toward Fort Dodge in western Kansas.
Cook recalled being met on the Indian Territory side of the Red River by a delegation from the local tribe. "We had explicit instructions from the government not to molest the Indians in any way, so we were going pretty careful, not knowing what might happen. The women were waving red blankets and shawls and the trail drivers were afraid the commotion might result in a stampede. We soon found out, though, that what they wanted was 'toll' -- that is, they wanted some of our cattle for crossing their reservation. We cut out some of the scrawny beeves for them, and they gave us no further trouble. But it was a sight to see how quick those beeves disappeared. They must have been pretty hungry for beef, because as soon as they were killed, they didn't wait to cook it, but devoured it raw. It wasn't any time at all before they were picking the bones."
"I remember they said some of them were Comanches, some Kiowas and some Cherokees. Nearly all of them wanted toll, and this cut our herd down some before we got to Fort Dodge. We were more afraid of the Comanches, as they were considered the most warlike of all the tribes."
He accompanied another herd north that fall, gathered from Johnson, Hill and Ellis Counties in Texas. It wasn't as easy an expedition, he said. "There was almost continuous rain, snow and sleet all the way up. We had three shifts of the guards at night, after the cattle were bedded down, and I took my place on these shifts along with the rest of them. The trip must have taken about six weeks, going and returning. It was really tough sleeping on the ground this trip, it was so wet and cold. I had just a couple of cotton quilts, and by morning there wasn't a dry thread in them, it was so wet. I used my saddle for a pillow. We would move the fire over, and flop down on the ground where the fire had been, which would stay warm for a while."
His final trip north was in 1874. "We handled the Indians about as usual, paying them a little toll now and then to keep them satisfied. But we had a new experience when we got to the Kansas state line. We ran into a bunch of settlers. The cowboys always called then 'nesters.' Now, they didn't like for these trail herds to cross their lands at all, and there they were gathered in groups, armed with shotguns and clubs, to force us to narrow the trail down as much as possible and keep the cattle moving. They were afraid they would lose some of their grass. You know, later on the Kansas Legislature passed a law to keep cattle from south of a certain line from being driven at all into their state. They claimed it was to prevent the spread of the so-called 'Texas Fever.' It was in June of that year that they almost came to war with the cattlemen coming up the trail. There might have been a war, too, but word came through from Washington, granting the Texas cattlemen the right to drive their cattle through the Indian Territory, and to the Kansas market."
After Cook left the cattle industry, he ended up in Paducah, Texas, operating the Cook Hotel.
J.H. "Jake" Byler
Jake Byler spoke with Elizabeth Doyle in San Angelo, Texas, as part of the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. As a young cattleman, Byler experienced what he later called the worst stampede he'd ever witnessed. It was near Buffalo Gap, which is located south of Abilene, Texas.
"The boss was over on first guard smoking Bull Durham in his pipe and rode off behind some bushes to strike a match and light his pipe. A strong wind was blowing from the south and just as his horse breasted an old stray yearling to keep him in the herd, he stopped so suddenly that it jarred the fire out of his pipe and that south wind whipped the sparks right over into the herd. They were gone!" he said. It was night, and it didn't take much at all to spook these wild cattle into a stampede. A new boy, who was sleeping under the wagon, jumped up, bumped his head on the wagon and made for a near-by sapling. Another puncher started up after him and he yelled, 'Don't come up here, we'll both bend this little thing down!' The fellow made for the next nearest bush and we made for the cattle. I tell you we had to be up and coming to even keep near them. They certainly were exactly right to be scared to death by those sparks. They were just old, wild Longhorns fresh off the range and we had some time getting them stopped. Then when we had stopped them, once they made a second break and ran all night long. There wasn't a dry thread on any of us and our horses were given out next morning when we finally got them stopped. I felt like I never wanted to see another cow so I turned in my time and quit."
But that wasn't the last of Byler's range experiences. He moved on to New Mexico, where he said he became involved in the receiving end of criminal activities, some of them involving a fellow known as Billy the Kid. "A new hand knew better than to ask questions. If he had any sense at all he kept his mouth shut and stuck to duty. If he didn't, he didn't last long. Billy the Kid was doing his part of the stealing on the Pecos and selling to [his employer]. I've slept many a night right by Billy and never asked a question, just got up next morning and took the cattle he had brought in up to the reservation without a word."
The stories that cowboys sang to the herd at night were true, he told Doyle. "Yes, we sung, whistled, and hummed to the cattle so they would know where we were, also that the other guards might know our location. The constant sound prevented fright from any sudden sound, such as a horse stumbling, etc."
As Missouri became off-limits for Texas cattle, Baxter Springs welcomed them to Kansas. The community built stockyards with corrals capable of holding 20,000 cattle at a time, with plenty of grass and water. The town calls itself the "First Cowtown in Kansas" and quickly developed the same sort of reputation that the other cowtowns also would get: Here was a place for cowboys to unwind after several months on the trail, with lots of flowing liquor, card games and available women.
At 10 miles per day, it took a cattle herd 100 to 110 days to travel from Texas. A typical herd would be strung out for two miles, guided north by 15 to 20 cowboys.
The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad arrived on May 12, 1870. When the railroad pushed on south, the Baxter Springs cattle industry died. By 1876, the community's population had fallen to 800.
The heyday of cattle drives had begun in 1867, the year Joseph G. McCoy set up a shipping yard in the 6-year-old hamlet of Abilene, Kansas. By late spring that year, McCoy wrote in his book, Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, Abilene was "a very small, dead place, consisting of about one dozen log huts -- low, small, rude affairs, four-fifths of which were covered with dirt for roofing; indeed, but one shingle roof could be seen in the whole city." That was about to change.
McCoy set up a shipping yard that could hold 3,000 cattle at a time, a three-story hotel, a bank and a livery stable. While these were under construction, he sent a man named W.W. Sugg south into Indian Territory, then east to the cattle trail then in use to tell the cattlemen that they now had an alternative destination: Abilene. No more worries from Jayhawkers or Texas fever-fearing farmers.
The first herd to arrive in Abilene, McCoy said in his book, was started from Texas by a Mr. Thompson, but sold in the Indian Nations to Smith, McCord & Chandler.
McCoy's shipping yard handled about 35,000 cattle that first year.
Jesse Chisholm was part-Scottish, part-Cherokee. A trader, interpreter, guide, businessman and, occasionally, finder of lost or kidnapped children, he had already traveled the trail numerous times, hauling freight from Kansas to stock his trading post -- or rather, trading posts. Some claim he was among the first to create a chain of convenience stores.
In proof of this is the map of 1876, issued by the Department of the Interior General Land Office, which shows a trail coming in from Fort Gibson to the southeast, and intersecting his wagon road at the Cimarron River. The map designates it as “Chisholm's Cattle Trail."
There's trails, and then there's trails. The Chisholm Trail we barely remember -- and have begun once again to celebrate -- stems from Jesse Chisholm's original freight trail. Odds are he did drive cattle along it, but only on a small scale. There were the oxen that pulled his wagons, and the odd cow or steer or bull -- or herd of them -- that came into his possession.
Jesse Chisholm died on March 4, 1868, barely a year after the cattle herds from Texas began to use his wagon trail from the North Canadian River to Wichita, Kansas. Only a few herds followed the trail while he was alive; his stores probably sold provisions to the cattlemen on their way north.
More and more people called it Chisholm's Trail, not just for the original freight trail, but for the entire length of the trail. In Kansas it split off through the years, traveling first to Abilene, then shifting variously to Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City and Caldwell. Other communities also served as destinations, but never to the extent experienced by these five cattle trading centers.
In the various territories that eventually became the state of Oklahoma (in 1907), the cattle followed one main route between the Red River and the Kansas state line. The route split at the Silver City crossing on the South Canadian River. The west branch, primarily used by stagecoach and freight wagons, ran through Fort Reno. The east branch curved through the Unassigned Lands and the current city of Yukon. The two branches came back together after crossing the Cimarron River, at or near the present-day town of Dover. From that point the trail was again one route north.
In Texas, south of the Red River, numerous routes have become known as the Chisholm Trail. Texas was a huge funnel, gathering in widespread cattle at the southern end and bringing them together at Red River Station to cross over into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). These trails became known as parts of the Chisholm Trail by association with the route farther north. Each trail has its place in history, but claims that the Chisholm Trail "originated" in San Antonio or Brownsville or Laredo or any of perhaps a hundred or so other communities just won't work.
The Texas trails fed the Chisholm Trail, and later as the Western Cattle Trail developed between Doan's Crossing on the Red River (southeast of Altus) and Dodge City, the Texas trails shifted west to feed it as well.
All the drovers had to do was follow the deepset wagon tracks north along Chisholm's Trail. Abilene was the primary destination at first, drawing herds from 1867 through 1871 -- that community's peak years as a cattle town.
Wichita was active as a cattle town primarily from 1872 through 1876. Then the herds moved farther west. Down in Indian Territory, herds broke off from the well-traveled Chisholm Trail and marched northeast to Dodge City. The "Queen of the Cowtowns" reigned from 1877 through the cattle driving era, in 1885. Cattlemen began using the Great Western Trail, up through the western part of Indian Territory, in an almost direct route north to Dodge City.
By 1876, when Dodge City was the leading cowtown, activity along the Chisholm Trail had slowed to a trickle in favor of the Great Western Trail. And by 1889, the dust along the old Chisholm Trail lay for the most part undisturbed by longhorn hoof. But in that all too brief period in history, between 5 million and 10 million head of cattle (depending on sources) had moved up the trail.
When the cattle drives abandoned the Chisholm Trail, it fell into obscurity. There were the stories, of course, mostly references in movies and books about the Old West, but the trail itself was swallowed up by civilization.